Coaching for Another Team: Top 12 NFL Head Coaching Candidates for 2015 (Part 1)

Last week, we looked at 10 current NFL head coaches who could be on the chopping block come the end of the season (Part 1, Part 2). Today, we look at 10 candidates for these jobs, when they become available. Most of these men are current NFL assistants, who now find themselves coaching to impress their future employers, as much as to win in the here and now, while one or two others are currently outside of the NFL perhaps looking for a way in. Today, we count down from 12-6.

12. Greg Roman, Offensive Coordinator, San Francisco 49ers.

Greg Roman has been banded about as a potential head coaching candidate for a number of years. Roman was considered a frontrunner for the Eagles and Bears jobs following the 2012 season, but an extended playoff run—which ended up with the Roman narrowly missing out on a Super Bowl ring—forced teams to look elsewhere. He was a finalist again for the Vikings job in 2014, before the team ultimately went with the defensively minded Mike Zimmer, a better fit given their recent struggles. But Roman still believes that his time will come.

Unfortunately for Roman, 2014 may not be that year. In recent seasons, his teams offensive frailties—they were ranked 24th overall in 2013—have been masked by deep playoff runs. However in 2014, even making the playoffs now seems like a tough ask. How much of the blame for this GM’s and owners will lay at Roman’s feet, and how much will be placed on Jim Harbaugh and Colin Kaepernick remains to be seen, but after three seasons of sub-par offensive performance, the Roman may not be a top candidate for anyone yet.

He is only 41, and already has 18 years of NFL experience, so there is plenty of time for him to receive the top job yet—NFL coaches regularly coach into their 60’s now. Roman may depart the 49ers either way—if the owners decide to cut ties with Harbaugh at the end of the season, his coordinators are unlikely to survive the house cleaning—and could be forced to take a head coaching job at the college level.

Roman has reportedly interviewed with several college teams, and has even received several job offers, though these have been turned down, due to his desire to remain in the NFL. However, a few years as head coach at the college level could really boost confidence in his ability to lead an NFL team. College football coaches have been the “next big thing” in the NFL, so while some may see moving out of the professional game a step backwards, it could prove to be the launching point a coach like Roman needs.

However, there is one way we can see Roman expediting this process significantly. If—and it’s a big if—the 49ers cut ties with Harbaugh before the end of the season, then Roman is the obvious choice to take over on an interim basis. If he does this, and does well, his chances of landing a top job elsewhere—or even keeping the job permanently in San Francisco—increase dramatically.

Ultimately, we still think Roman is 2-3 years away from being a real top candidate, but if things turn around for the 49ers, or he gets a shot at leading them and does well, Roman could shoot up this list.

11. Dennis Allen, Former Head Coach, Oakland Raiders.

When Dennis Allen was hired to help rebuild the Oakland Raiders, we couldn’t help but feel he was being set up for failure. When he joined the team, they lacked an identity, motivation and belief.

Prior to his arrival, the Raiders had already traded away their first and second round picks, preventing him from stamping his mark on the team, and, unsurprisingly, this resulted in a sub-par performance. In 2013, the team had nearly $49 million in “dead money”—salaries carried forward from players who have since been cut—counting towards their salary cap, which also prevented Allen from fixing the team. The hope was that this would result in huge amounts of cap space for Allen and GM Reggie McKenzie to finally begin the long-awaited rebuilding.

As we now know, McKenzie took that $63.5 million in cap space, and blew it, in nearly unimaginable ways—allowing key free agents to walk, while drastically overpaying for sub-par outsiders. But, after nine straight losses, it was Allen, not McKenzie who was on the chopping block.

Frankly, we don’t blame Allen at all for his recent struggles, and we doubt many other NFL owners would either. We place the blame nearly wholly on McKenzie, and expect that at least some other teams look past the recent results and see just what Allen actually managed to do with the train wreck of a roster he was given to work with.

His 8-28 record is in no way indicative of the sort of coach he is, and we hope that at least a few other NFL teams will be willing to kick his tires, and give him an interview.

There is a ton to like about Allen. He is a young, defensively minded candidate, with a refreshing outlook. He calls games aggressively, and isn’t afraid to try new, and creative things. He is a champion of younger players, and would be a great fit for any team looking to “rebuild”—assuming, of course, the front office is willing and able to give him that opportunity.

Like Roman, recent performance will likely work against him, and at 42, some time working under an experienced head coach, or honing his craft at the college level could do him some real favours, but we expect he will get one or two calls this offseason, and if he is able to convince owners that the failure was not his fault—hardly a difficult sell—he could be in with an outside shot of getting another chance to lead a team.

10. Dave Toub, Special Teams Coordinator, Kansas City Chiefs.

Once upon a time, special teams coordinator was nothing more than a launching off point for coaches with big dreams. It was a way to get “coordinator” next to your name early in your career, for sure, but in the hierarchy of a coaching staff was closer to the bottom of the ladder than it was to the top. But in recent years, the emphasis on special teams, coupled with success of Baltimore Ravens head coach, and former Eagles special teams coordinator has changed that perception drastically.

Dave Toub is considered one of the premier special teams coordinators in the NFL, both with Devin Hester and the Bears explosive special teams unit, and more recently, the Kansas City Chiefs.

Toub was a finalist for the Miami Dolphins top job in 2012, which ultimately went to Joe Philbin, and also interviewed for the Chicago Bears after Lovie Smith was fired, but was not selected as a finalist for the job.

In recent years, ST coordinators have also often pulled double duty as talent evaluators for second-string players, and have a lot to do with ensuring backups—many of whom get regular reps on special teams—are game-ready if called upon. Teams regularly churn the bottom half of their rosters, in the hope of finding a gem, and ST coordinators can have a huge part to play in that talent evaluation process

This kind of experience has been huge in the Ravens recent success—their depth and ability to find starters in the bottom half of their roster—and has highlighted what an ST coordinator as a head coach can really bring to the table. Any team which had regularly struggled to remain relevant after injuries or suspensions to starters—teams like the St. Louis Rams, for example—would do well to consider someone like Toub, and while teams will likely not be lining up outside his door for interviews, the right team, with the right mentality, in the right situation could find great success with a coach like Toub.

9. Adam Gase, Offensive Coordinator, Denver Broncos.

Gase has been one of the hottest commodities in NFL coaching circles since his breakout success with Peyton Manning.

Even at the tender young age of 36, Gase has already had his chances to interview for head coaching positions. After his team’s 2013 Super Bowl run, Gase was linked with the vacancies in Minnesota and Cleveland, and reportedly even turned down the chance to interview for the Browns, saying that it “just wasn’t the right time” to pursue a head coaching job.

Gase would become the youngest active NFL head coach if he got a gig this year, and among the youngest head coaches of all time. Most teams have shown hesitance when it comes to head coaches in their 30’s—the average age an NFL coach gets his first head coaching job is 45—but several have recent history hiring younger head coaches, including the Pittsburgh Steelers (Mike Tomlin was 35 when hired, Bill Cowher before him 34) and Oakland Raiders (John Gruden, Lane Kiffin, John Madden, Mike Shanahan and Al Davis himself were all 35 or less when hired as head coach) and both could potentially be on the market for a new head coach this season.

No, perhaps the bigger issue for any team thinking about hiring Gase is exactly how much credit he can actually take for the Broncos recent offensive success. Although Gase draws up the plays, Peyton Manning reportedly has a lot of say in which plays actually make it into the playbook, and while Gase does call the plays into Manning’s headset, given the amount of noise Manning makes at the line of scrimmage, it’s always impossible to know how much, if at all, the play ran on the field resembles the one called from the sideline.

Although the rumour persists that most of Manning’s verbiage at the line of scrimmage does nothing at all, and is purely to try to throw off a defence, Gase will have to go a long way to prove that he, not Manning, is the true offensive genius on the team.

There is also the question of if, at this point in his career Gase even wants to be a head coach. His time will inevitably come, that is not in any doubt, right now, however, Gase must know that his best chance of winning a Super Bowl ring has to come in Denver with the Broncos.

Any team in need of a head coach this season will likely be in rebuilding mode, and most new coaches take at least 3-4 seasons to truly bed down, and make the team their own. Even the playoffs could be several seasons away, depending on the team he inherits, during which time, Manning and the Broncos would be virtually a lock to make the playoffs, and will remain one of the Super Bowl favourites for as long as Manning is playing at his current level.

Gase will get calls this offseason, whether he will, or should, take them remains to be seen.

8. Hue Jackson, Offensive Coordinator, Cincinnati Bengals.

Another former Raiders head coach, Hue Jackson is currently the Offensive coordinator for the high-flying Cincinnati Bengals. At 6-3-1, the Bengals are still very much in control of their own destiny, in spite of recent missteps, and Jackson has been a big part of their recent turn around.

He has head coaching experience, and his record in Oakland in 2011 was a fairly reasonable 8-8—the team has since gone 8-28 under his replacement Dennis Allen, and have also not won since Allen was fired—and most consider the struggles of the Raiders at this time more due to questionable hiring decisions by owner Al Davis, and his firing more to do with the house clearing which followed the hiring of GM Reggie McKenzie.

Jackson is a black coordinator, which virtually guarantees that he will receive calls, if only to fulfil the “Rooney Rule”—which requires teams to interview at least one minority candidate for all head coaching jobs—and previous head coaching experience will likely mean that Jackson will be higher up the list than several other potential candidates.

The only reason we do not have him listed higher up this list is, frankly, we’re not sure he wants the top job any more. Watching him on the sideline of the Raiders, he appeared stressed, downtrodden, unsure, and often dejected. Watching him as Running Backs coach for the Bengals, in the dirt with the players during the 2013 instalment of Hard Knocks, he seemed alive, inspired, and in his element. He is a mentor, who relishes moulding and shaping young players, bringing out their best, and getting to know them. Jackson, unlike many of the coaches on this list, has already been to the top. He knows what the job entails, and the sacrifices that it takes to succeed, and we’re unsure he is willing to make them again.

While a rare few head coaches are able to develop great mentoring relationships with their players—including people like Bruce Arians and Pete Caroll—more often than not, ascending to the top position means spending less time with your players, less time getting to know them, and less chances to mentor them directly. And if, as we suspect, that is what drives Jackson, only a few destinations would offer him that continuing face time with players he seems to thrive on.

7. Todd Bowles, Defensive Coordinator, Arizona Cardinals.

When Todd Bowles took over from Ray Horton—a head coaching candidate himself—as Bruce Arians was installed as head coach, most Cardinals fans were hesitant.

Their defence under Horton had been one of the lone high-points during the previous seasons, and many were concerned that Bowles would not continue the aggressive, up-tempo style which had become a trademark of the Cardinals.

If anything, it has only got more aggressive, and successful, under Bowles.

Bowles is one of the most hotly tipped active coordinators for a head coaching job in 2014, and for good reason. In addition to being a minority candidate, which always increases your chances of getting a call, he is one of the most beloved coaches by his players, one of the most creative and exciting defensive minds in the game, and has proven his ability to get success with rookies, journeymen, and backups just as easily as with established stars.

During his time in Arizona, he has lost key players like Tyrann Mathieu—defensive rookie of the year candidate—to a devastating knee injury in the back half of 2013, Karlos Dansby to the Cleveland Browns, Daryl Washington to season long suspension and Darnell Dockett to a season ending injury during the off season, and lost John Abraham for the season due to a concussion, and Calais Campbell missed three games during the season, and yet the Cardinals barely miss a beat.

Bowles also has a little head coaching experience—he went 2-1 as interim head coach for the Dolphins in 2011—and is considered as the early front-runner for the newly created “Assistant of the Year” award come postseason.

He is a major part of why the Arizona Cardinals currently own the NFLs best record at 9-1.

Most of these lists have Bowles as one of the top two or three candidates on their list, and was the only current coordinator I found who was listed on every similar list I looked at while researching this, so why don’t I have him listed higher? There are two simple reasons. Firstly, Bowles has just signed a new seven-figure contract which reportedly makes him one of the top-five highest paid assistants in the league. This allows Bowles to be a little more picky about the calls he takes, a guaranteed $1 million plus for the next three years makes choosing to walk away a lot more difficult.

Of course, Bowles could earn more between 3 and 5 times more per season as a head coach, but that also comes with knowing that if he is unable to turn around a team, and is fired during the early part of his contract—a very real possibility in todays NFL—he could face a 2-3 season climb back even to coordinator level, with no guarantee the he will earn anywhere near the same amount. For example, Hue Jackson spent a year as secondary and special teams assistant—which is well outside his area of expertise—and a second season as RB coach before being promoted back up to coordinator level.

The contract reportedly contains no clauses which would stop Bowles from taking a head coaching job, and he will undoubtedly listen to offers, and take interviews. But the size and security offered by his current contract, coupled with the rapport he has with Bruce Arians and the Cardinals front office—they reportedly reached out to him to offer him the pay raise, because “he earned it” he was not negotiating—may prevent him from accepting just any head coaches job, especially with a team who has proven to have little patience with previous coaches.

Next there is the fact that the Cardinals could be setting themselves up for a deep playoff run, which has regularly cost coordinators in the past. In 2013, for example, both Darrell Bevell and Tom Cable of the Seattle Seahawks were considered candidates for head coaching posts, but teams proved unwilling to wait until February to hire a leader, so head coaching positions were already filled by the time they were able to start interviewing.

There is plenty of football still to play, and if the Cardinals performance falls off between now and the new year, they lose home-field advantage, or worse still a playoff spot altogether, then expect Bowles to be much more likely to take an interview elsewhere, but right now, we think the chances of Bowles staying are much higher than most Arizona fans assume.

Part 2 coming soon.

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